Sunday, February 28, 2016

Feminartsy Story Share

On Thursday, 18 February, I was very fortunate to be asked by Feminartsy to tell my origin story about how I became a spoken word artist. I joined fellow story-tellers Alison McGregor and Melinda Smith at Gorman House for the event. Hosted by Zoya Patel, it was a wonderful evening.

Below is my story from the event.

Melinda Smith, CJ Bowerbird, Alison McGregor and Zoya Patel
(Feminartsy)

Five years ago, just out here, as part of an event named by Andrew Galan The Ghost of the Gorman House Man Hatin’ Matron, I am standing on a milk crate and shouting poetry into the Gorman House Markets.

Afterwards, a gentle, quiet, older woman comes up to me. In one hand, she has a copy of my CD of poems, which she has just bought from the merch stand. In her other hand, she holds a flyer on Palestine.

"So, are you using your poetry to change the world?" she asks me.

I am taken aback and, uncharacteristically, lost for words. I write and perform for fun. It's just poetry, right? I mean, I'm not political or anything.

I can’t remember what it was I said, but whatever it is, I know I mumble it and laugh nervously, before turning away.

But that question has stayed with me and I've tried to answer it since then. Why do I write and why did I start performing my poetry in front of others?

At first it was purely ego, and to be honest, ego still plays a large role.

I've always written in some form or another, and still have poems from when I was a little boy. I've always enjoyed public speaking and performing in front of others. I am fortunate to be fairly good at speaking in public. I have a good memory, a good voice and I am usually able to control my nerves.

I am prouder, however, of being Lycus the brothel keeper in a production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Oberon, King of the Faeries in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Essential preparation for a life of spoken word.

It was in 2009 when I brought these two things – poetry and public performance – together. A saw a poster for the monthly poetry slam at The Front and went along to see what it was about.

Two weeks later, I slammed for the first time at Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit!. And the next slam at The Front, after another two weeks, I performed The Most Awesome Party Ever. I cringe now when people request that poem, but I won that night.

And I was hooked! It was such a buzz, performing your own words and having people laugh and cheer and score you! Pure ego.

I slammed at least once every month and was fortunate enough to do fairly well at it. This luck continued and in December 2012, in Sydney, I won the Australian Poetry Slam. I performed two poems which were more entertaining than introspective. I actually changed my poem for the second round from the planned sad story to something more energetic, humorous, self-deprecating and “clever”. I was engaging people but, I feel, at a superficial level.

This win allowed me to perform at five different writer’s festivals in 2013. The highlight (for me, perhaps not for the audience) was putting together a 45 min show, an ensemble of my previous poems and some new work, in which I explored three different characters I seemed to present in my poems: the professor, the therapist and the autist. It was cleverly called “Meta”.

During this time, I found a deeper connection with the audience than pure entertainment. I enjoy making people laugh and smile, but I get particular pleasure out making people believe my poems. To be taken away. To feel. To cry.

During the Sydney Writer’s Festival, I performed my poem about how I wish I could build billycarts again and race recklessly down steep hills. A man, about my age, approached me with his son (who looked about 10 years old). He told me my poem made him cry. A big, grown man was confessing to crying as a result of my poetry. This reached me more than seeing someone laugh at a cheap joke.

I also performed in China during 2013, sometimes to an audience which spoke little English. As part of my Meta show, I would break down and tear my clothes off, finishing the show in bare feet and a torn shirt. A Chinese woman in the front row turned to her friend and said in some distress “is he all right, should we do something”? It was difficult to keep in character. But this made me realise: my words and my performance can convey emotion to people and connect through shared experience.

This is the real first reason I write and perform: to connect with people. Like now, looking at your faces, connecting.

This connection teaches me more about others. I have written persona poems – poems written from a different point of view than my own, such as a historical figure – and these have helped me see a little way into the hearts of others. But it is more through the way people react to my most vulnerable poems that I have learnt the most.

The reactions of the father in Sydney and the woman in China teach me about what we all have in common – the things that link us. This is the second reason I write and perform my poetry.

Thirdly, and most fundamentally, I write to learn more about myself. When I write a poem, I start with a clear idea of what I intend the poem to be about. This may be a theme or an idea or even just a line. But I sit down to write a poem about that central inspiration.

As I write, though, the poem often changes. I have found myself writing things I didn’t know were inside me. I have surprised myself. I have found this more and more since I stopped slamming and started writing more honest, more exposing poetry. I have opened myself up to this writing and these poems.

Writing a poem is telling myself a story first, before I am ready to tell it to others.

These vulnerable poems are my best. And, not coincidentally, they are the poems which connect strongest with others.

I perform a poem which is essentially about drinking scotch on my couch at night, looking at the limpid light sneaking between the curtains and listening to the Currawongs wail outside. When I recently performed this is Sydney, a young woman came up to me in tears. Pointing to her boyfriend, she told me how accurately I was describing how he often spends his nights.

So why do I write poetry and perform it in front of others? Because of the connection it gives me to others. Because it teaches me about others. Essentially, because it teaches me about myself.


So, to answer the woman with the Palestine brochure and my CD: I don’t write to change the world. But it changes my world. And if I can change the world of a few others, even for a few minutes, then it’s worth it.